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Supervisors vote to shift some power

The move would give the L.A. County administrator more authority, including supervision of department heads.

March 14, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After a testy 2 1/2 -hour discussion, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors granted the county administrator broad new executive powers Tuesday as part of a dramatic shift in management philosophy.

The 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Mike Antonovich vigorously dissenting, would allow an appointed executive to oversee county department heads. The administrator's new authority would include making hiring and firing recommendations with board approval. Until now, supervisors were directly responsible for screening, evaluating and hiring and firing all top non-elected county officials.

A particularly controversial provision would bar board members and their staffs from issuing orders to county employees. Some supervisors expressed concern that the ban might prevent them from even talking with department heads; they eventually decided it would not.

"For anybody to think that the system we have now is adequate, I'd beg to differ," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy, who introduced the proposal with Supervisor Don Knabe.

"Do we bear any responsibility for what goes on here?" Yaroslavksy asked the rest of the board. "Has any one of us ever taken responsibility for something that's gone haywire or is it always somebody else's fault?"

The five-member board governs a county of 10 million residents, and has wrestled with severe problems, including issues with hospitals, jails and juvenile halls, over more than a decade in office together.

The measure is intended to streamline county government and sharpen the lines of authority and accountability. Under the ordinance, department heads would answer to the county administrator rather than take at-times conflicting orders directly from the supervisors.

"We want to make their role such that they don't feel constantly bombarded with questions," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said.

Antonovich roundly criticized the "radical" reform, arguing that it would "emasculate" the authority of elected officials and the voters who chose them.

"Free speech ought to remain free, and elected officials ought to remain free to criticize and commend and to lead and to direct," Antonovich said, describing the ordinance as "irresponsible and reckless."

The ordinance is scheduled for a required second reading, often a formality, next Tuesday. It would go into effect 30 days after that.

The proposal is intended as an interim measure; four board members want to make the changes permanent through a charter amendment to be put before voters in 2008. If approved, a charter change would allow the county administrator to act without authorization of the board.

Voters rejected a 1992 proposition to establish an elected county executive.

The debate surrounding the details of the proposal laid bare supervisors' philosophical differences on county government. Antonovich characterized the board as an effective body that conducts the majority of county business capably.

"It's not perfect," Antonovich said, "but at least we allow the people of this county to elect people who work together.

"We have moved this county forward," he said.

Antonovich and Knabe unsuccessfully argued for the addition of a sunset clause that would allow the ordinance to stand through 2008, and then be renewed or dropped if shown not to be working.

The rest of the supervisors described a government system in need of reform, in which problems such as substandard care at the former Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center were allowed to fester unchecked until they exploded into crisis.

"I am convinced at this point that we have a problem," Burke said. "If everything was working great, I don't think that we'd be sitting here discussing it."

Beefing up the chief administrator's role is a "recognition that there are some things that we need to do differently in this county," Burke said.

Several supervisors expressed concern that the new policy could stymie communication with department heads about issues affecting residents in unincorporated areas. But the "non-intrusion" amendment would specifically allow supervisors to "seek information and/or assistance" from county staffers.

"I don't feel like I'm giving up anything," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "I feel like I'm making [the county] more effective and efficient."

"You think I'm going to give up the right to pick up the phone and call a department head?" Knabe said. "Absolutely not."

County Administrator David E. Janssen has yet to determine staffing, budget and other logistical changes needed to implement his newly expanded role.

After holding the administrator's post for more than 10 years, Janssen officially retired in January. But after a failed search for his replacement, he agreed to remain for the rest of the year to shepherd it through this transition. The move to augment the administrator's authority was sparked in part by rejections from two candidates for the administrative post, both of whom were accustomed to greater powers.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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